Operation Jackpot: A South Carolina High

This book review is reprinted from an article I wrote for the July/August issue of the Columbia Metropolitan Magazine. The original article can be found here, along with some great photographs. There is much more to this story than I had room to include. I highly recommend grabbing your own copy of this book for the whole story. 🙂

The story is utterly fantastic, with a list of villains so long one has trouble keeping up with them all. On the other side are the avengers — the scores of investigators and prosecutors that read like a who’s who of South Carolina legal minds. Exotic locations from Singapore to Australia, St. Barthélemy to Colombia, and Lebanon to Jamaica all feature prominently, as do familiar locales like McClellanville, Hilton Head, and Edisto. The escapades are daring and dangerous, with heart pounding chases, life-threatening clashes with nature, and audacious smugglers halting a raging civil war on more than one occasion. All of these experiences relate to the astounding volume of marijuana and hashish smuggled into South Carolina by the so-called Gentlemen Smugglers with a street value, in today’s dollars, of $1.8 billion. Wild as it seems, the story is true. Wilder still, the two main characters hail from Columbia, South Carolina. The investigation and prosecution is known as Operation Jackpot, which was chronicled in a book called Jackpot: High Times, High Seas, and the Sting That Launched the War on Drugs by Jason Ryan. 

Les Riley grew up just a few miles from downtown Columbia. His upbringing was typical of the South, with plenty of time spent hunting, fishing, and escorting the occasional debutante. In college at the University of South Carolina, Les was known to take his dates to the roof of Cornell Arms to smoke marijuana and enjoy the sunset. He spent his free time between classes his senior year burning up the road between Columbia and Key West, Florida, where he worked as a doorman. After college, Les moved to Key West and started a landscaping business, cutting grass for $5. He counted playwright Tennessee Williams as a client and musician Jimmy Buffett as a friend.

Growing up a few miles from Les in Columbia, Barry Foy spent his youth delivering newspapers and eggs, working on construction crews, and pumping gas. After brief attempts at college, first at Newberry College and then at USC, Barry began selling marijuana in Five Points. Later, he moved into a Hollywood, Florida, beachside hotel frequented by men who participated in, among other activities, drug dealing. In 1971, they asked Barry and another hotel guest to sail to Jamaica to bring back 400 pounds of marijuana. With that, Barry’s career as a drug smuggler launched, and he enjoyed legendary status among Columbia’s marijuana enthusiasts. Some even volunteered to come along, enticed by the idea of cruising the Caribbean and returning on mattresses of marijuana bales.

Barry and Les met in Key West where, in 1973, Barry persuaded Les that smuggling grass was much more lucrative than cutting it. Barry flew to Jamaica to meet with suppliers, while Les and three others struggled to sail there in storms, high seas, and high winds. The return trip home was worse, especially when they were fired upon when straying too close to Cuba.

With each trip, Barry and Les learned more about the smuggling business. They learned they could make more money if they obtained their product from Colombia rather than Jamaica. The product was better and fetched a higher price. To source the best marijuana, Barry partnered with another smuggler named Bob “the Boss” Byers, who took Barry into the mountains of Colombia to meet farmers directly. Also important were the right boats: some were made for blue water (long term, open sea) sailing; some were not. Finally, having an accessible and secluded place to offload was vital.

Les and Barry considered marijuana a nearly legal product. In the 1970s, the drug was widely used, and the public’s attitude was apathetic. Arrests resulted in insignificant charges, if any, so the two did not feel they were doing anything really criminal. Two rules were sacrosanct: no guns and no smuggling cocaine. They felt guns were unnecessary and, in fact, invited violence. Similarly, this is why they chose not to traffic cocaine. While it was a more lucrative product, cocaine smugglers invariably toted automatic weapons. Given their standards and their college educations, the two men were nicknamed “the Gentlemen Smugglers.”

In time, the drug trade grew crowded in South Florida. Barry and Les decided to look for a quieter entry point for their product. As native South Carolinians, they did not take long to settle on the lush Carolina coast, with its virtually endless waterways and, in the 1970s, undeveloped seclusion. In most areas, major highways were within an easy distance, aiding quick distribution to major cities like Atlanta; New York; Washington, D.C.; and Chicago. Les bought a home on Hilton Head, as well as other property, and used it for offloading his merchandise. The smugglers also “borrowed” plantations along the coast owned by rich Northerners who rarely visited. McClellanville’s creeks were popular, too. Other choices included an abandoned oyster shelling company on Hilton Head and West Bank Plantation on Edisto Island, owned by Ella Seabrook, grandmother of Barry and Les’ friend, Skip Sanders. The property had a deep water dock. Unbeknownst to his grandmother, Skip charged the smugglers a fee to offload their product there.

They grew their network to include names like Tom “Rolex” Rhoad, John “Smokin’ Sneakers” Jamison, Ashley Brunson, Bob “Willie the Whale” Bauer, Christy Campbell, and Frank Gunn, to name just a few, and occasionally partnered with a Virginia smuggling ring led by Barry “Ice Cream” Toombs that included Virginia brothers Lee and Michael Harvey.

Barry Foy and Les were making so much money it was hard to figure out what to do with it all. They stored it in monetary safe havens around the world but also spent it on homes, cars, and nice vacations. They owned homes on St. Barthélemy and drank copious amounts of expensive wine. Still, it was more than they could spend. While both men delegated sailing and offloading to others early on, they enjoyed the thrill of smuggling and the lifestyle it afforded them, and they were always in search of a bigger adventure.

The next big adventure came through importing hashish from faraway locales like Lebanon and Singapore. The payday for smugglers was double that of marijuana. Still, they had the added challenge of crossing oceans and, in the case of Lebanon, interrupting a civil war that had been raging for five years. Both sides ceased fire when the smugglers’ boats arrived to pick up hashish because drug money paid for the war to go on. Soldiers would sometimes even help load drugs onto the boats and then, once they were clear of land, fighting resumed. A normal hashish load had a street value of $300 million in today’s dollars.

In January 1981, Ronald Reagan became president and promoted a stiff policy on drugs. One of President Reagan’s earliest actions, on recommendation of Sen. Strom Thurmond, was to appoint Henry McMaster as South Carolina’s United States attorney. Henry immediately sought to attack drug smuggling at the highest levels of the trade. In discussing the issue with Brian Wellesley, Internal Revenue Service criminal investigation chief for North and South Carolina, Henry learned of a novel “Net Worth” approach successfully used in Southern California to identify probable criminals there by comparing the costs of their homes, cars, boats, and extravagant lifestyles with their likely income. He eagerly implemented it in South Carolina. Representatives from various federal agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, United States Customs, and the IRS, were invited to a meeting in Columbia to form a task force along with SLED. It was unprecedented for the agencies to share information, much less work together and out of the same office. But, by pooling their collective expertise, they were an extraordinarily effective weapon against drug smuggling.

The task force, in concert with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, worked to bring the Gentlemen Smugglers and their associates to justice. Typical agency turf wars were not allowed; anyone who refused to play nice was excused from the team. While law enforcement had tried to catch the smugglers in the past and, in a few instances, succeeded, they were hampered in the 1970s by unsophisticated or nonexistent equipment, insufficient support, and the miles and miles of South Carolina shoreline. Reflecting back, Governor McMaster says, “It was virtually impossible to catch them in the act. We decided to figure out who they were and catch them at home.” With this new approach,  the task force leveled the playing field. “The agents deserve all the credit,” says Bart Daniel of the task force. He was an Assistant United States Attorney at the time. “Their synergy was really something.”

Conventional thinking was that major smuggling originated in big cities like New York, Atlanta, or Chicago; however, David Forbes with the IRS and Claude McDonald with Customs received enough tips and rumors over the years to believe the culprits were closer to home. At Henry and Brian’s suggestion, the two began following the money. Within a short time, the men identified Barry as someone who recently used cash for a large land purchase. Another tip came through phone numbers salvaged from a suspected drug boat scuttled in the Edisto River. The numbers led back to Les. Piece by piece, the task force identified a web of drug smugglers, half of whom were South Carolina natives. Even though task force members cooperated with one another, their superiors sometimes tried to throw up turf-related roadblocks. When that happened, the task force only had to call on Henry, who bulldozed through any problem using the considerable political power at his disposal.

The task force used a 1978 amendment to the United States’ civil forfeiture provisions allowing the seizure of drug-related offenders’ property before conviction or without any conviction at all. This hit the drug smugglers smack in the purse strings. Houses, land, boats, and prized cars all disappeared into government coffers, much to the consternation of the Gentlemen Smugglers and their associates. Charleston’s famous restaurant, 82 Queen, was seized as well. According to Governor McMaster, “The task force decided to use that publicity to let them know we were coming.” Some smugglers quickly surrendered or were easily arrested and took plea deals in exchange for testifying against their co-defendants. Others, including Barry and Les, were harder to bring in. Assistant United States Attorneys Cam Currie, Bob Jendron, Cam Littlejohn, and Bart Daniel assisted in the effort both by helping with asset identification and seizure and with prying criminals out of the countries where they were hiding. 

The first of three trials began in Charleston before U.S. District Court Judge Falcon B. Hawkins, Jr., even while asset seizures, indictments, and arrest efforts continued with the other smugglers. Bob Byers was caught in Antigua by DEA agent Dewey Greager and David Forbes, who posed as buyers of his $900,000 sailboat, La Cautiva. Thanks to a corrupt jailer, Bob later escaped from a Charleston County jail and disappeared. It was a devastating blow to the task force. Barry Toombs and at least five other fugitives holed up in Costa Rica were eventually extradited in February 1983. David and fellow task force member Chuck Pittard were interviewing a friend of Barry Foy’s in Manhattan when Barry called her, saying he and his family were on their way to New York. David and Chuck fed questions to her for the kingpin and used the information to set a trap. Barry was apprehended at the LaGuardia airport wearing a full-length mink coat.

Les and another defendant, Wally Butler, were found living in Australia and arrested on May 5, 1983. A 30-month long ordeal ensued as the Australian court wrestled with whether the two could be extradited on a drug kingpin charge. Cam Currie, Bob Jendron, and David Forbes traveled to Australia to meet with authorities there and explain the severity of the charges against the men. SLED agent Robert Stewart and Bart Daniel also traveled to Australia while the case was being appealed. Henry and Assistant U.S. Attorney John McIntosh and Cam Littlejohn assisted the Australian prosecutors at the hearing. At last, the High Court ruled that America’s kingpin statute was an extraditable offense in 40 nations of the former British Empire. It was a winning decision not just for the Operation Jackpot prosecutors, but also for the global war on drugs because it would discourage future American drug kingpins from fleeing to those countries to avoid prosecution.

Operation Jackpot defendants were tried in three large batches and represented by well-known South Carolina defense attorneys such as Gedney Howe, Arthur Howe, Ed Bell, and Sol Blatt. Back then, the U.S. Attorney’s Office had little security and nothing to keep someone from walking off the street and into a prosecutor’s office. Just after the first trial, a man did just that. He walked in and stood in front of Bart’s desk. “He said, ‘Hi Bart, my name’s Christy Campbell, and I’m here to turn myself in,’” says Bart. “He was as pleasant as can be.”

The investigation, asset seizures, defendant arrests, and trials were full of extraordinary tales and consumed the lives of task force members for four years. When all the Operation Jackpot trials were over, more than 100 smugglers went to jail. “It’s the most amazing story going on in law enforcement in the United States today,” said Henry at the time. The longest sentence went to Lee Harvey, who received 40 years for drug smuggling, possession of machine guns and silencers, intimidation of a grand jury witness, and racketeering, among other charges. Bob Byers got a 25-year sentence plus eight years for his escape. Tom Rhoad received a 15-year sentence, Barry Foy got 18 years, and Les Riley was sentenced to 21 years.

Judge Hawkins died in 2005, Dewey Greager in 2017, and Cam Littlejohn in 2018. Lt. Robert Stewart became Chief of SLED, and Cam Currie became a U.S. District Court judge. Bob Jendron retired after a long career as a federal prosecutor, while his former coworker, Bart Daniel, served as U.S. attorney from 1989-1992 and is now a partner in a Charleston law firm. After serving as U.S. attorney, attorney general, and lieutenant governor, Henry McMaster ascended to South Carolina’s governorship in 2017 and was elected to his first full term in November 2018.

Now, 13 years after the last Gentleman Smuggler was sentenced, they are all out of prison. Bob Byers died in 2004. Tom Rhoad died in March 2005 after suffering an aneurysm. Barry Foy followed his prison time with a career in real estate and construction. Les Riley lives on Seabrook Island. The surviving Gentlemen Smugglers still gather occasionally at an event they call “The Felon’s Ball.”

In the fall of 1986, in a speech in Columbia, President Reagan said, “Operation Jackpot was our first major breakthrough in our war on drugs.”  

For those who want the full story of this local legend, Jackpot is a something-for-everyone kind of tale. Civil wars and ocean chases pound the heart of the thrill-seeker. History and legal buffs will appreciate reliving the 1970s with the challenges faced by the task force and the ingenuity used to achieve its objective. The adventurous will enjoy tales of exotic locales, fugitive escapades, and mountains of drugs and money. These are just the highlights of this incredible, true tale.

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